BY JEFF FALK
HERSHEY – Wes Bankus had heard about the PIAA Wrestling Championships – its enormity, its history, its environment. But after experiencing what can be an overwhelming venue first-hand, he walked away from it wondering to himself, ‘What’s the big deal?’.
On Thursday morning at Hershey’s Giant Center, Bankus accomplished some things at the state tournament that first-time wrestlers aren’t suppose to accomplish. Not only did the Elco junior win his first-ever PIAA bout, he did it dominating fashion.
Bankus pinned fellow 11th-grader Saul Wilkins of Wilkes-Barre GAR at the 1:49 mark of their Class AA 285-pound preliminary bout. Bankus came out hard, didn’t let up and moved himself within another victory of a coveted PIAA medal.
Up next for the now 44-13 Bankus will be a Friday morning quarterfinal date with Southmoreland sophomore Jake Beistel, who took care of Gene Ringer of Reynolds, 3-2 in overtime. That bout will go off after 10 a.m., back at Hershey’s Giant Center.
“I was nervous,” said Bankus. “On the van ride up here, I was more nervous than when I was on the mat. Any time you step on the mat, you feel like home.
“I waited two or three hours for my match,” Bankus continued. “It’s tough. You don’t want to be the first one to wrestle and you don’t want to be the last one to wrestle. But I’m excited.”
“He’s a heavyweight, so he’s laid-back,” said Elco head coach Chad Miller of Bankus. “He knows this is a pretty good opportunity. As long as he thinks he can do it, it’s doable. He would’ve been disappointed if he would’ve left here without a win.
“Coming here, we wanted to place,” added Miller. “We wanted to be here at the end of the tournament.”
Bankus wasted little time attacking, or more accurately, countering Wilkins’ aggressive nerves. Bankus used Wilkins’ momentum against him, then picked up a takedown a mere ten seconds into the bout.
“I knew he was strong,” said Bankus of Wilkins, a 30-9 Northeast Regional champion. “But he’s a first-year wrestler, so I didn’t think he knew how to defend. Standing is my bread and butter. It’s my strongest position. I knew he was going to come out pushing into me. I wanted to use his momentum against him.”
“When he got that takedown, I thought the kid (Wilkins) would be more defensive,” said Miller. “To do that (Bankus’ counter move), you’re feeling pretty confident. You could tell he’s pretty confident.”
Smelling blood, Bankus never relented and never lost control of his position on top. Fifty seconds later, at the midway point of the opening period, Bankus turned Wilkins and then upped his advantage to 4-0 with two back points.
From there, it was just a matter of Bankus working Wilkins into a pinning position. Bankus got his fall with 11 seconds showing on the first-period clock.
“The second time, I used the same thing, a bar,” said Bankus. “When you’re turning a big guy like that, you’ve got to be careful how far you go. Everyone’s been wrestling me good. But I want to go out with a bang. I want to go as far as I can go.
“I have to give a lot of credit to my family and my wrestling team,” Bankus added. “My team is like my wrestling family.”
“With that match, yeah we felt pretty good,” said Miller. “I don’t know if we were confident, but we knew it was the best possible match-up for Wes. We felt pretty confident.
“The fact that the kid (Wilkins) was inexperienced, and that Wes has a lot of experience, we felt good about that,” Miller continued. “Once you get to this level, you can get nervous.”
Bankus entered the tournament with the most wins of anyone in the Class AA heavyweight bracket, and the most losses. It’s been that kind of season for the Raider junior.
Last weekend at the Southeast Regional tournament at Wilson High School, Bankus rode an opening-round upset of the top seed to a fifth-place finish, and claimed the region’s final state berth that goes with it. The reigning Lebanon County champion at heavyweight, Bankus, who went 24-18 overall last season as a sophomore, finished fourth at sectionals and third at the District Three Class AA meet.
Ironically, the last Lebanon County heavyweight to qualify for the PIAA Championships was former Elco Raider Jake Walmer.